Mike Leigh wants it both ways, and often gets it. While the director is based firmly in the hard edges of reality, Leigh keeps offering us glimpses of ridiculous beauty, particularly in recent films like Happy Go Lucky and Vera Drake, in which the protagonists are absurdly kind but the world keeps bringing them down. In Mr. Turner, Leigh tries the same formula on backward. Here, the world shakes us into solemn reflections and joyful surprise. You could cut out any frame of this movie and blow it up and proudly hang it on your wall: Turner under a snowy cliff, fishing under the trees, sitting across from a prostitute he has posed on a bed.
Yet for all that gorgeous 19th-century scenery, the film’s characters border on the squalid. The man in the title, for instance, played with a grimacing slow boil by Timothy Spall (he was Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), is a grunting, barely articulate man who grabs at the misshapen servant girl and ignores his own children as they prosper and perish. Yet this is the man Leigh thinks is perfect to show the dawning of the Victorian era and the movement of art itself from meticulous representation to ecstasies of impressionistic paint.
Leigh never lectures, and some famous characters — like a cameo by Oscar Wilde — pass almost unnoted, but his glimpse of another era revels in the differences between ideas and action, or transcendent beauty and the world’s ultimate power to make each of us, as Turner says, “a nonentity.”